Ethical School Podcast

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues
A colleague of mine, Jon Moscow, from my old Central Park East Secondary School days, puts out a frequent podcast on schools.  Here is a link to mine, but I like a lot of them!
Sample them and let me know which you thought was especially interesting or useful.
To see more of their podcasts go to
News from Mission Hill school.  Ayla Gavins has stepped down from her leadership of Mission Hill after at least 15 years as its principal!  The role is now in the hands of two teachers who go back many many years—Jenerra Williams and Geralyn  McLaughlin.  Geralyn was at MH on our original opening day and Jenerra came a few years later as a student teacher.  In keeping with our piloting tradition they are coming on as teacher-leaders, not principals.  More on  this after I hear more from them.  Some of the staff are coming to visit me on October 13th.



New thoughts on Charter Schools….

Just took a long swim in my pond and feel restored—maybe to age…. 50?

I’ve been involved this past year in working with Steve Zimmerman, who has started two community-based charter schools in Queens. He’s helped me do some hard thinking about my divided loyalties.

On one hand I’m a fierce critic of privatizing K-12 schooling. Of course. And that includes all kinds of subtle forms of privatization and using public monies to make a profit off of educating young citizens. I’m also shocked by the many ways in which the corporate and philanthropic world has lied and cheated and abetted the growth of the “charter chains” which operate within the worst of all worlds. They are corporate-style operators with control resting in the hands of privately selected board members who live and operate worlds apart from the communities and families they make decisions for.

BUT. What about colleagues I know (like the late Ted Sizer) who started charter schools because, unlike me, no one in the public school world offered them a chance to have the kind of freedom I was given in NYC’s East Harlem or in Boston? The only way they were able to do what so many of us did during a certain period in NYC and Boston was to take advantage of charter law!!

Why can’t we go back to Shanker’s original vision and apply to ALL public schools the best lessons of the charter experiment learned over the last 30 years while avoiding the worst? Schools should be places which demonstrate that democracy and freedom needn’t be enemies.

What better way to teach democracy to young people then by placing them in the midst of self-governing, community-based schools within publicly set rules of accountability and transparency?

So I’ve joined my friend Steve Zimmerman and support his organization; CPICS, The Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools. More about them and their plans next time I write. Meantime, you can contact CPICS directly by writing Steve at or visit the website,


PS: Privatization is being pursued by the Trumpists and must be fought tooth and nail. And charters and vouchers are part of their strategy. We need to be vigilant. Democracy is our means and end. I haven’t changed my mind about any of that.

Can Choice Save Public Education revised

I recently ran across an article I wrote for The Nation in 1991 entitled “Choice Can Save Public Education.” It surprised me for two reasons, (1) Was I already worried that public education might disappear? And (2) when did I stop being such an enthusiast for choice?


At the time I wrote the Nation piece my slogan was “Small schools, choice and self-governance” was my mantra.

I even thought school size could be mandated without doing any harm—and probably doing a lot of good. My enthusiasm for choice began when in 1973 Tony Alvarado, the superintendent in East Harlem offered me a chance to start “my own” school of choice. District 4 was a densely packed district, about a square mile in size. 1973 was the beginning of a too short period in New York City when elected local school boards and their superintendents had unprecedented autonomy. Alvarado’s proposed that parents could choose to send their children to this new small school and I could choose the staff, and together we were promised a lot of freedom. Within a few years there were almost as many small schools of choice as zoned neighborhood schools. In a way it made the neighborhood schools a choice as well.

District 4 quickly went from being the poorest and lowest scoring school district to be having schools with some social class integration (more based on class than race) and higher test scores. Small schools and choice seemed to have won a victory. Self-governing schools not so much—alas—as few of the new or old school leaders liked the idea of sharing power.

Self-governing democratically operating school became my central focus from then on. As I was approaching retirement, I was attracted to Boston, which was starting something they called Pilot Schools. It seemed an exciting opportunity to explore all three ideas through a program initiated by management and the union, designed as an answer to charters—and an answer to that old question “Can Choice Save Public Education”!

Charter school were now becoming the new school reform. On the face of it, they could be seen to offer what I was looking for: Choice, self-governance, and smallness. Oddly, neither the District 4, nor Boston projects, which offered many of the things charter school proponents claimed were the purpose of charters, and had records of success, attracted the interest of the fans of charter schools.

Charters did provide many teachers of my bent the opportunity to launch new schools that provided more freedom and close ties between their constituents to try what seemed promising innovations. However, charters also appealed to opponents of public schools who believe, above all, in the virtues of an unregulated market place, and the chance to see whether entrepreneurs might be encouraged to profitably invest in K-12 education if the idea could be scaled up enough. The assumption was, as with Dunkin Donuts, that this would work if all franchised schools could be centrally managed and if buying in bulk would help lower costs—not to mention be able to avoid union wages and protections for staff.

In this new climate, choice developed new complications for me. Whose choice? For what purpose? It turned out that many “school of choice” were doing much of the choosing—choosing who they let enter and who they wanted to get rid of. Schools of choice began to defuse the power and sense of solidarity that held neighborhoods together around the institution they thought they “owned.” Rather than inviting more participation, schools of “choice” could take the tone “if you don’t like the way we do things here, choose a different school.”

It was also a step backward in the movement to school integration by class or race, as people chose schools (or the school chose them) where the students looked like them, or their kids. School choice and charters could allow White flight from “neighborhood” schools without having to move or pay private school tuition.

Smallness it turned out could also be as much a curse as a blessing it turned out. It could make life harder for many teachers in schools where increased principal power was considered the reform flavor of the day. Tyranny and conformity are easier to enforce in small rather than large schools!

Seeing how choice and smallness can be used has required some tough rethinking of old favorites on my part. In the next few months I would d like to explore these on my blog with you. I’d love reactions of any sort.

P.S. Read These Schools Belong to You and Me, written a year and a half ago by Emily Gasoi and myself.

Keeping Hope Alive: CPESS Reunion

Dear friends, colleagues and family,

A wonderful evening August 17 at Savannah Rae on 123rd and Adam Clayton Powell  Blvd has led me to be tougher on myself!  There is work to be done and it is time to ignore my symptoms and get back to the keyboard! Task one: back to a blog entry every week…or every other?

The event—the last Saturday brought me into the city (thanks to Jane Andrias’ husband who drove us in and out!)! Probably over a hundred graduates of Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) got together again.  It is the third or fourth formal reunion the graduates have had. It has been 27 years since the first five Central Park East Secondary School classes graduated.

After the first dozen or so years, and the first five or so graduations there were dramatic changes that gradually created a very different school. It hurt but the pain of the loss of the original vision of CPESS disappears when I see these wonderful men and women who came from its heyday. All the women are strong, all the men handsome and all way above average! (to paraphrase the Lakewoebegone slogan). Best of all they remember us—staff and peers—with love and for the last almost three decades have been there for each other.

No one can take that away!

I hope you all have bought the book Emily Gasoi and I wrote last fall, These Schools Belong to You and Me.  In many ways Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, which inspired our book title, sums up how we felt about CPESS and what Woody Guthrie’s song had in mind for this land of ours. Those words remind me again that the heart of a good school—and nation—comes down to the quality of the relationships forged between the real-life people who make it go day after day. As we witness the fraying of a very precarious struggle for a true democracy his words help, just as did this reunion.

I also just finished reading a recently published British book entitled Miseducation – Inequality, Education and the Working Class. Author Diane Reay tackles issues close to my heart and reminds me of concerns we share but also of our different contexts. It is useful to read and think of whether and how it would read if racism and racial inequality were its theme. I think it helps me understand the rise of Trumpism. I believe, like Reay, that schools have played a role in creating the divide that has made enemies out of potential allies.

Which in turn led me to Aretha Franklin and the concept of mutual respect which is too often absent from our schools and politics.

Which brings me back to that roomful of friends last Saturday night, most in their forties but also a few of us in our late 70s on up. And mostly Black and Brown. All of us full of fond memories of each other (and a few probably tinged with regrets). But there was a love in that room that keeps me hopeful. And determined to stay in the long-term battle as long as I can

No more excuses.


P.S. The event last week reminded me also that one person’s determination to make a difference is not to be forgotten.  Thank you Erran Matthews For making it happen.

After the Education Wars: Book Review

After the Education Wars:
How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform
By Andrea Gabor
The New PressGabor

I have been intending to restart my blog for the past year. Laziness and health issues keep me postponing and postponing. But I got something in the mail, from The New Press, that was irresistible, Andre Gabor has written a wonderfully interesting book that includes a lot about our work in New York City—and got me reliving those 20 years. There are some minor inaccuracies that some NYC teachers, and other insiders will catch, but none are important or change the story significantly. But her story helped refresh my memory; and her analysis is spot on. She “gets it.” There’s a good deal about Ann Cook’s (who founded Urban Academy in the Julia Richmond Complex) work with the Consortium. There is also a section on work in the surrounding Massachusetts area, and on other fascinating projects in other locales about which I knew nothing. I wish I had.

I learned a lot of important things in the chapter on Massachusetts, although she did not cover the work that Tom Payzant (Boston’s superintendent while I was there) as the founder of the Pilot Schools in Boston aside from a few bare mentions.

Her book also coves a fascinating story from Leander, Texas and the charter take-over in New Orleans. I was surprised. It was not just that it is fun to read about oneself—she made it fun and instructive to read about other people’s work too.

The subtitle of the book is: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform. Nice. And she reminds me that even I was once an enthusiastic fan of a famous business guru, Edward Deming. I even briefly thought that we might be in one of those periods where parts of the business world would split over to our side and thus we would be a formidable school reform movement. Not because one of us was being misled. We were entering a new period of history which made both the factory model of business and of school obsolete. I don’t regret my naivete—it was fun and we did good work, as graduates of our many schools remind me.

Alas, the democratic impulses behind Deming’s work and ours was the first to be abandoned in favor of a vision of the future in which centralized decision making would become even more dominant. Sometimes this new deform used the same language of empowerment and critical thinking while actually espousing the opposite with technology supporting standardization rather than “standards.” Real standards, of the type espoused by Ted Sizer, John Goodlad, Vito Perrone, Linda Darling-Hammond an Lillian Weber and many other early school reformers was an entirely different animal. It grew out of a deep investment in looking deeply into the quality of the work—with a special transparent connection between practice and purpose.

Democracy, even the limited kind we are accustomed to in the USA, is imperiled today everywhere. While we may always have been an oligarchy with democratic features, those features were very important and laid the basis for a future in which the balance of power between the citizenry and the oligarchy was tilted in favor of democracy. It looks bleaker these days (partly because one of the few powerful alternate centers of power is missing: the labor movement, but that I another, if not unrelated topic).

It was obvious to many of us that spending those critical 12 years in schools which were models of top down decision-making, above all in schools intended for the majority of citizens, was not likely to develop democratic habits. Young people spend years and yeas watching adults who had only surreptitious power over their own working lives, and where not following the rules is as dangerous for the adults as it is for the kids. Maye more so.

What I noticed first and foremost when I started subbing in Chicago public schools was the prevalence of fear –as though a riot might at any moment break out. As young people were spending many more years in school rather than the work place was, as I soon realized, not as beneficial for ordinary working-class kids as it was intended to be. Going to work was, for most, liberating compared to the tedium of the 9-3 school day, times 180!

Could it be otherwise? Private schools, and some suburban schools intended for ruling class children had quite a different climate—more akin to the relationships amongst adults that we expect in a democratic society. Just making our other schools more like the Daltons and Fieldstons for the rich would be a huge step forward—although it rests in part upon spending more money per child. In short: I, and other like-minded folk, did not have to invent what an education would look like if everyone was expected to join the ruling class. Such an educational model already existed and had been used successfully for many decades.

Maybe Gabor “gets it” because she sends her own children to such liberating—intellectually and socially—schools. In fact, the very same one I went to. She went in a different direction career wise than I did—but lo and behold we come up with many of the same conclusions and solutions. Meanwhile we both are probably hoping that we can retain those precious democratic “features” long enough to see a resurgence of a school reform movement aimed at increasing the odds in favor of a democratic society.

Gabor is, by the way, a business writer, currently the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College, and formerly an editor at U.S. News and World Report, Business Weekand more. Her background may account for those interesting disagreements we have, as well as differences in interpreting this or that event. Or it might even sometimes be because she is right and I am wrong.

To Strengthen Democracy, Invest in Our Public Schools

(reprinted from American Educator, Spring 2018)

By Emily Gasoi, Deborah Meier

American Educator Spring 2018

Who could have imagined that, more than 150 years into this bold project of preparing successive generations for informed citizenship, our system of universal education would be as imperiled as it is today? One of the original ideas behind establishing a system of “common schools”—as one of the early advocates for public education, Horace Mann, referred to them—was not that they would all be mediocre, but that children from different backgrounds, the children of workers and the children of factory owners, would be educated together. As Mann wrote in 1848, “Education … beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”1

Of course, Mann’s own understanding of equality and citizenship was surely limited, as he wrote these words at a time when only white men had the vote, the Emancipation Proclamation was yet to be signed, and the children of workers were more likely to be working in factories themselves than they were to be attending school. And while schools have historically mirrored society’s inequities as much as they have inoculated against them, our public institutions nevertheless have at their foundation the ideals set forth in Mann’s quote and in our most soaring rhetoric about individual freedom and the common good.

And yet, in our current reform climate, our system of public education is often referred to as a “monopoly” rather than a public good. As such, in districts around the country, public schools are being shuttered at an alarming rate, with more than 1,700 schools closed nationwide in 2013 alone.2

Nowhere is this trend more dramatically played out than in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s home state of Michigan, where entire school districts are losing the battle against unregulated privatization through for-profit charter management entities and voucher programs. And while there is no evidence that school choice alone helps to create more equitable educational opportunities, DeVos seems determined to make Michigan a model for the rest of the country.3

With the very existence of our system of free, universal education hanging in the balance, there has not been much of a frame of reference for discussing the need to make our schools more democratic. However, in our recent book, These Schools Belong to You and Me: Why We Can’t Afford to Abandon Our Public Schools, we argue that the threat facing public education is a threat to our democracy writ large. Thus, if we are to take seriously our nation’s founding ideals, schools must remain grounded in the humanistic values underlying the original purpose of a system of education that aims to prepare all comers for competent participation in a country governed of, by, and for the people.

* * *

American Educator Spring 2018W. E. B. Du Bois laid claim to this original purpose in 1905 when he declared in a Niagara Movement speech: “When we call for education we mean real education. … Education is the development of power and ideal. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be, and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people.”4 All societies educate a ruling class to make important decisions in their own interests, as well as for the society over which they rule. The history of our democracy is defined by the struggle to expand who is part of that ruling class. Du Bois’s quote highlights both the enduring shortcomings of our system of public schooling and the promise it holds out to provide all children—the future stewards of our commonweal*—with a ruling-class education.

There are multiple and complex reasons why, more than a century after Du Bois spoke these words, and nearly two decades after the aggressive and ineffective accountability measures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our schools remain as segregated and unequal as ever.5 Certainly one of the primary causes is systemic racism that continues to plague our society. While few schools, regardless of demographics, have ever done a good job at providing children or adults opportunities to engage in experiences with democratic life, in low-income communities of color, schools tend to be characterized by an authoritative school culture. In fact, the level of intellectual and physical freedom in schools tends to correlate directly with the socioeconomic status and skin tone of the student body.6

But another strong factor in perpetuating school inequality is our historic tendency to conflate free-market ideology with democratic ideals. The tension between economic freedom—the right of individuals to enrich themselves—and the need for regulation, social services, and safety nets in the name of creating a strong civic fabric is long-standing in the evolution of our democracy. But over the last several decades, the ideas of free-market thinkers, such as economist Milton Friedman, who wrote the 1995 essay “Public Schools: Make Them Private,”7 have increasingly gained currency, in education reform and beyond.

Within the free-market paradigm, a one-to-one correlation is drawn between what is framed as the “failure” of public schools and what is seen as the “failure” of economically disadvantaged groups to pull themselves up and out of their circumstances. If schools would just teach “those” students more effectively, then, the argument goes, they’d be as likely as their more advantaged peers to compete competently in the pursuit of material wealth and happiness.

But market-oriented reforms prioritize the interests of the already advantaged. This is evidenced in test-based accountability strategies used to leverage school equity, a centerpiece of NCLB. A quick scan of National Assessment of Educational Progress data reveals that white students perpetually do better on standardized tests than all other groups, ensuring their demographically less privileged peers a Sisyphean cycle of catch-up.8 And yet, closing this elusive test-score gap has become a proxy for addressing the very real gaps in privilege. Thus, even as reform rhetoric champions the use of tests and privatization as tools to level the playing field, such tactics actually move us further from that goal.

Although it may seem impractical, even naive, in our current reform climate to advocate for prioritizing democratic education, we argue that such a change in course is imperative if we are ever to get on track toward a more inclusive and, not incidentally, more productive and just society. Our work in democratically governed settings has taught us about the benefits, difficulties, obstacles, and ways forward for creating democratic public schools that prepare the young for engaged citizenship.

It was in working together with colleagues, students, and families that we learned more about the dilemmas a democracy inevitably runs into and how to get comfortable grappling with the inevitable flaws and tradeoffs that arose within the system we created in our school. And through such grappling, we were able to model democratic practices and values for students. In democratic schools, teachers and families discuss, debate, and, as much as possible, make important decisions that affect the school community. Similarly, in such settings, young people have the opportunity to be “apprentice citizens” of their schools, in order to practice becoming active citizens in the larger society.

Ultimately, the purpose of public education in a democracy is to get more Americans, starting in early childhood, to internalize the idea that they are part of the deciding class, as entitled as anyone else to voice an opinion and to make a mark on the world. That, of course, is the ideal—one worth striving for. Given the increasingly precarious state of our public and democratic institutions, it is clear that we are paying a price for not making democratic citizenship an explicit and urgent goal of our national education reform agenda. For how can we hope to educate for democracy if children and the adults in their lives never have the opportunity to observe or practice it? And if such an education doesn’t take place in our public schools, then where will it happen?

Emily Gasoi, a cofounder of the consulting firm Artful Education, teaches in the education, inquiry, and justice program at Georgetown University. She was a founding teacher at Mission Hill School in Boston. Deborah Meier is a former senior scholar at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the author of numerous books and articles about public education. A former teacher and principal, she is also a MacArthur Foundation award winner.

*The word commonweal is not often used in writing, let alone common parlance. And yet the meaning, “the common welfare of the public,” should be more familiar, especially in schools, where, we argue, students should be taught to care about the commonweal, their place in it, and what contributions they will make to preserve and improve it. (back to the article)


1. Horace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report of the Secretary of the Massachusetts School Board, 1848,” in American Educational Thought: Essays from 1640–1940, 2nd ed., ed. Andrew J. Milson et al. (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 163–175.

2. “Number and Enrollment of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools That Have Closed, by School Level, Type, and Charter Status: Selected Years, 1995–96 through 2013–14,” in National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2015, table 216.95.

3. Kevin Carey, “Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins,” New York Times, February 23, 2017; and Mari Binelli, “The Michigan Experiment,” New York Times Magazine, September 10, 2017.

4. W. E. B. Du Bois, “Niagara Movement Speech,” 1905,, accessed January 2, 2018, (link is external).

5. Gary Orfield et al., “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State” (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project, 2016),… (link is external).

6. Jason P. Nance, “Student Surveillance, Racial Inequalities, and Implicit Racial Bias,” Emory Law Journal 66 (2017): 765–837.

7. Milton Friedman, “Public Schools: Make Them Private,” Washington Post, February 19, 1995.

8. See National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012 (Washington, DC: Department of Education, 2013).

American Educator, Spring 2018

My latest books

MEIER_GASOI_TheseSchools_FINALEmily Gasoi and I published last fall These Schools Belong to You and Me: Beacon Press, and so we have been busy promoting it around the country.





beyond_testing-332pxI will mention again that Matthew Knoester and I had a book published by TC Press last summer:  Beyond Testing: 7 Assessments of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests.  And, by the way, more compatible with the purposes of schools.